My mother, sister and I went to Mexico to celebrate our mother’s birthday. She wanted to visit Morelia, where her father was born, as well as San Miguel de Allende, because she had heard so much about it (it’s well-known for its community of artists and expat Americans). I decided that I wanted to visit Oaxaca, where I hoped to experience a more authentic, less-touristy side of Mexico; and Huatulco, a beach town where they were supposed to have filmed the beach scenes in Y Tu Mamá También.
In Morelia, we stayed at The Hotel Virrey, located next to the Zócalo (town square). The hotel used to be a castle, and with the stone walls, tapestries, and even a suit of armor in the hallway, it wasn’t hard to feel transported back in time. We arrived late at night, enjoyed a nightcap by the fireplace and went to bed.
The next morning, we wandered around the cobblestone streets and strolled through the Zócalo. My grandfather had left Mexico in the late 1920s/early 1930s, and as we walked around, I kept trying to imagine him as a young man, wondering if he had attended mass at the main cathedral, and if he danced at festivals in the Zócalo.
In the afternoon, we took a guided tour of the town. We started on foot, then got into a van for a drive up a large hill for what the guide promised would be a nice view of the area. Shortly after leaving the main square, we made a turn that took us off the cobblestone streets and onto a paved highway. We drove past Walmart, KFC, grocery stores, modern life in general.
At the top of the hill, we could see just how far and vast Morelia expanded. My mother knew she had been here once as a small child, but had no memory of it. After my grandfather died, most contact with his relatives in Mexico gradually faded as his generation passed on. Looking at the city below me, I was sure that I had relatives somewhere out there, possibly even second cousins.
MONARCH BUTTERFLY RESERVE
While in Morelia, we took a daytrip to the Monarch Butterfly Reserve. Every November through March, millions of Monarch butterflies in North America migrate to this region of mountains in central Mexico. Early in the morning, we joined our same tour guide and a few other tourists (we were the only Americans, the rest of the group was from Mexico City), and drove for almost three hours before getting to the base of the mountain. It took almost another hour to get up the winding roads, and my ears started popping from the high altitude.
At a certain point, cars are not allowed any further in order to protect the reserve, and our options were to either hike or ride a horse or donkey the rest of the way up. My sister and mother got on horseback while I opted to hike, not being a fan of horses after a little incident in Spain many years ago.
After hiking for about twenty minutes, I was starting to wonder how much higher the mountain could possibly go when suddenly some butterflies flew by me, almost as if they were beckoning me forward. A few minutes later, we came upon a clearing where the sky appeared to be filled with butterflies.
As I looked upon the other mountaintops in the distance, the butterflies were like snowflakes falling onto the trees. There was a small crowd of people watching, and yet it was so quiet you could actually hear the flapping of thousands of butterfly wings. I honestly felt a surge of spirituality rush through me. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. My father had a Monarch butterfly tattoo on his shoulder, and when he died the Monarch became a symbol for our family. The cathedral we had visited the day before was certainly majestic, but I felt much closer to God and my father up in the mountains among these butterflies. It was hard to leave.
SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE
After Morelia, we went to San Miguel de Allende, about a four-hour drive away. Since our few days there were to coincide with my mom’s actual birthday, we decided to splurge on a nice hotel. We booked a master suite at Dos Casas, which included a fireplace, sauna, and private outdoor patio jacuzzi. It was so luxurious that we seriously had a hard time leaving the room to explore the town. But I’m glad we eventually did.
San Miguel is beautiful and quaint. I had heard it described as the Aspen of Mexico, and I could see why. Lots of art and culture, nice restaurants and homes, and vibrant colors everywhere. A shopkeeper told us that a city ordinance requires all buildings to be painted with specific colors – mostly earthy oranges, yellows, and reds.
I really enjoyed exploring the little shops and taking a trolley tour of the town. But mostly I enjoyed polishing off a couple bottles of wine in the jacuzzi with my mom and sister, then passing out in front of the fireplace. I may as well just admit it. But I would definitely recommend San Miguel for anyone looking for a relatively easy yet authentic Mexican experience.
The next two legs of our journey took us further south. To get to Oaxaca, we had to fly through Mexico City. We had decided early in our planning not to visit Mexico City. As much as we wanted to see all things Frida Kahlo, we all agreed that we did not feel like dealing with a big city. As we flew over the city, I looked out the window and immediately knew that we had made the right decision. The city is larger than I could ever have imagined.
When we arrived in Oaxaca, there were two things I noticed right away. First, the palm trees – we had clearly changed climates from the higher altitudes of Morelia and San Miguel. I also noticed how different the people looked. You could definitely see more Aztec features.
We stayed at the Hotel Victoria Oaxaca, situated on a hillside above the main part of Oaxaca City, which is in a valley. By the time we got to the hotel from the airport, it had already gotten dark, so we enjoyed dinner at the hotel and retired to our room for the night. The next morning, we awoke to find that we had the most glorious view of the valley and town below.
After breakfast, we took a hotel shuttle to the town square and began exploring. We strolled through the Zócalo, spent a great deal of time in the never-ending market, and basically just wandered around.
What I loved the most about Oaxaca was how many unexpected treasures we came upon. We would wander down a side street, see an open entrance to a beautiful courtyard, and find ourselves in the middle of a co-operative of artists, selling handmade clothes, jewelry, shoes, and of course, the famous Oaxaca black pottery. We also wandered into an amazing pizza joint, a private residence (oops! sorry about that!), and a meeting of student Communists. If San Miguel is the Aspen of Mexico, Oaxaca must surely be its San Francisco.
The final destination on our Mexican adventure was the beach town of Huatulco. As I researched our trip, I was drawn to Huatulco for a number of reasons. First, we were going to Mexico in January, and I would kick myself if we didn’t get to a beach before heading back to winter in DC. Second, I had read that it was a popular surf town, even hosting an international surfing event, so I was hoping it would have a cooler vibe than some of the bigger resort towns. Third, I also read that the beach scene from Y Tu Mamá También had been filmed in this area, and I really wanted to find that spot of pristine, empty beach that I could have all to myself. Fourth, there was a direct flight from Huatulco to Houston, which meant that we could fly straight back to the U.S. and therefore extract every last second of vacation time left.
We had two options to get to Huatulco from Oaxaca. Either take a ten-hour bus trip though the mountains, or a forty-five minute flight in a small plane. We chose the plane. Despite the fact that they distributed us on the plane according to weight, and the co-pilot slept through most of the flight (after putting a sun-visor on the windshield), as we flew over the mountains, I knew we had made the right choice.
As soon as we arrived, we dropped off our bags at our hotel, Mision de los Arcos, and immediately ran out to buy some lighter-weight clothes. It was much warmer than we had expected. Then it was time to explore. We strolled around the town square, and I indulged in an iced latte from a small coffee shop. After carefully avoiding ice and tap water for the entirety of our trip so far, I finally threw caution to the wind.
Huatulco was awesome. Our first full day there, we took a guided jet-ski tour of the coastline. The coastline is not a smooth line, but rather a series of small bays, so touring from the water allowed us to get a better appreciation of the landscape. To the north of us were newer upscale resorts with private beaches. To the south was a nature preserve, which meant that we would have had to hike quite a distance to get to the beach. Part of the preserve included the beach I was looking for – yes, the one from my movie – and it was in fact pristine and empty. We also spotted some sea turtles. Actually, we spotted two sea turtles attempting to make a bunch of little sea turtles, if you know what I mean.
The next couple of days we enjoyed at the beach – practically empty, it was perfect – and explored the town. Our last day, we enjoyed a visit to a day spa, where I had all my accumulated travel aches and pains massaged away.
Finally, and no disrespect to the fine Mexican cuisine we enjoyed throughout our trip, I had the most amazing meal of my life at L’Echalote, a restaurant owned by a French chef. He actually used to cook for the president of Mexico, then decided to move to the beach and open his own place. We arrived without a reservation to find that they were booked, but were waiting on a group that was very late. After fifteen minutes, they gave us their table, and I will be forever grateful to that absent group. Our feast included amazing Vietnamese spring rolls, succulent Osso Buco, and refreshing mango cream puffs, all washed down with a couple bottles of wine. As we soaked in the beach air on our last evening – now full, tan, and happy – we were already beginning to plan our return trip.